The senseless murder of Tecumseh Police Officer Justin Terney leaves us grieving and asking why.
Why, in a state whose budget is dominated by corrections spending, is it possible that, despite multiple arrests for violent crimes, Terney’s accused killer never received the help he so desperately needed? Help may have prevented this horrific killing.
Why, prior to the deadly encounter with Officer Terney, did suspect Byron James Shepard and his criminal record that spans at least 17 years and five counties never confront meaningful intervention and treatment? His record included numerous felony charges, such as assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, kidnapping, domestic abuse, violating a protective order and pointing a firearm, but very few convictions and no remedial accountability.
When Shepard’s many protective order cases are considered, the result is the résumé of a habitual batterer, specifically, what domestic violence prosecutors call a “high-lethality offender.”
Shepard’s pattern of violence without rehabilitation is all too familiar to me as a former prosecutor specializing in domestic violence. So is the reason for it.
In Oklahoma, prosecutorial and correctional resources are poured into non-violent drug offenses by the barrel. But violent habitual batterers like Shepard, despite being dangerous and even deadly, receive a comparative trickle of resources.
The sad result is habitual batterers roaming about without treatment at a time Oklahoma has been sending scores of nonviolent drug offenders to prison, robbing the state budget of money for more effective treatment in the process.
According to the District Attorneys Council, Oklahoma prosecutors spend about $100 million each year, much of it to incarcerate people using drugs. The state’s sole source of dedicated domestic violence funding for prosecution and enforcement will distribute only about $1.7 million this year. That’s less than two percent of prosecutor spending on some of the most dangerous types of criminal activity.
This lack of resources results in three deadly things: First, law enforcement and prosecutors working domestic violence cases are habitually overworked and undertrained. Second, victim services, if available at all, are underfunded, overwhelmed and unable to give victims the support they need to leave abusers safely and testify to help hold them accountable. Third, treatment and rehabilitation services for offenders are scarce to non-existent in many parts of the state, leaving prosecutors and judges without constructive options that can prevent future violence.
Had Shepard received the preventative attention his past conduct deserved, Officer Terney might be alive today. So might the many wives, girlfriends and children who are typically the victims of habitual batterers in Oklahoma, where the domestic violence death toll is among the nation’s highest.
But by passing State Questions 780 and 781, Oklahoma is finally working to fix this problem by reversing years of handling the wrong people the wrong way. It is imperative that we defend this voter-approved reform, and build upon it.
When prosecutors are given tools and guidance to focus less on who uses drugs and instead on those who abuse their families, Oklahoma will be a safer, better place with fewer felons and fewer funerals.